Third Monday of the Great Fast (also, 40 Martyrs of Sebastia)
The Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church commemorates on March 9th the 40 Martyrs of Sebastia. (The calendar of our Church also permits that this feast be transferred to the succeeding Saturday or even Sunday.)
A brief account of their martyrdom follows the selected prayers below.
Selections from Evening Prayer
Forty soldiers of the emperor had become soldiers of Christ.
Asked to offer sacrifice they pledged allegiance to their Lord.
It was a cruel winter and they were all condemned
to lie naked on the ice of a lake and be frozen to death.
They ran undismayed to the place of their combat
and joyfully stripped off their garments
and with one voice prayed God to keep their ranks unbroken:
“Forty we have come to combat; grant, Lord, that forty be crowned.”
A warm bath was ready nearby for those who would deny Christ.
One of the confessors lost heart and crawled to the fire,
but died, body and soul, at the spot where he expected relief.
However, a guard who had watched them was inspired to confess Christ.
He took his place and again the number of forty was complete.
Blessed is the Slain who by His death comforts His followers.
Unmoved by tortures in His Name, they made light of death.
Frozen to death the forty martyrs remained unconquered,
the freezing ice becoming fuel for fire. Blessed is the Mighty One
Who strengthened them and gave them victory in the combat.
In Your bounty and Your love, Lord, make memory of the dead
who have eaten Your body and Who drank Your blood,
and who now rest and sleep in the hope of Your Name.
When You shall come to judge the peoples and the tribes,
raise them up, Lord, at Your right side.
May your prayers be with us, O Forty Martyrs,
may your prayers always be with us.
May the Lord hear your prayers and be gracious to the whole world.
By your prayers, O Holy Martyrs,
may the Lord strengthen us to follow Him fearlessly
and like you to find Him by witnessing to His love.
The martyrs looked at each other courageously and cried out,
“Today is the Feast, Christ calls us to His side.”
And as each one marked his eyes with the sign of the Cross, the Evil One
who was approaching them was put to flight by this gesture.
Blessed Martyrs, you were not fighting against human foes
but against the cosmic powers, wicked rulers of this dark world.
You were an incense sacrifice ascending from the lake to the Lord
and its fragrance wafted through the whole creation.
Glory to the Father Who made the martyrs like pillars;
adoration to the Son Who descended and stood among them;
thanksgiving to the Spirit Who adorned them with crowns of glory;
and on us graciousness, by their prayers, at all times.
Gospel Reading: Luke 12.1-12
The 40 Martyrs of Sebastia
In c. 320, forty Christian soldiers in the Roman ‘Thundering legion’ became martyrs at Sebastia on the banks of River Kizil in Lesser Armenia (today in Central Turkey). During the persecution unleashed by the Emperor Licinius on Christians, the Governor Agricolaus commanded soldiers to worship idols. Having disobeyed the command, the soldiers were tortured and imprisoned. Subsequently, they were martyred by being left naked on the ice of a frozen pond, with baths of hot water on the banks as a temptation to renounce their faith. One of them succumbed to the temptation and his place was taken by a heathen soldier of the guard, who confessed his faith. Their bodies were stacked together on a pyre and burnt to ashes. Their ashes were recovered by Empress Pulcheria (399-453). Their martyrdom is narrated by St. Basil of Caesaria, St. Gregory of Nyssa and in works attributed to St. Ephrem the Syrian.
Hymns of the phanqitho of the Syriac Orthodox Church compares the Forty Martyrs to the forty palms in the vision of Prophet Ezekiel (Ezekiel 40-41), stars that removed the darkness of idolatry, the lamps of Sebastia that shone through the night and shed light throughout the world, and diamonds that glitter on the crown of the Church.
The phanqitho of the Great Lent names these martyrs: Dumitianus, Alexandrios, Kyrillos, Plabius, Smargdos, Xanthius, Sisianus, Levanthius, Severianus, Phileximon, Agagios, Iraqilios, Akdikios, Kurion, Avilus, Euthicius, Husegios, Eunicius, Ilianos, Acacius, Aethius, Athanasius, Nicolaus, Melitian, Candidus, Bibianus, Cydian, Gaius, Sacerdon, Duminos, Gorgonius, Priscos, Theodolus, Anatalius, Melition, Ilinius, Theophilos, Lucimacus, Ivanius, and Cilthodius.
The hymns for Evening Prayer are taken from Francis Acharya, Prayer with the Harp of the Spirit, Volume III: The Crown of the Year Part II: The Seven Weeks of the Fast of our Lord and of His Life-giving Passion and the Night of His Resurrection (Vangamon: Kurisumala Ashram, 1985).